Big boost for math and science

County officials have doubled the funding for an innovative pilot curriculum teaching the science behind rocketry, weather and forensic investigations and are now challenging biotech companies to contribute even more.

By tapping companies like Amgen, Genentech and Gilead Sciences to match the county’s $50,000 commitment to the program, officials hope to begin to turn the tide of work force shortages in biotechnology, bioscience, health care and other technology professions highlighted in a recent report by the Office of Education, Supervisor Mark Church said.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the nation’s fourth-grade students earn lower marks in math and science than their counterparts in other developed countries, Church said.

“The goal is to create new programs to inspire kids to excel in math and science so that they will be better prepared to fill the work force,” Church said.

Partly to blame is a lack of math and science teachers, educators said. Each year, school boards in the county pass resolutions allowing them to hire math and science teachers without a teaching credential, if necessary. While most ultimately find credentialed teachers before school begins, it’s an ongoing concern, said Sharon Meyers, personnel specialist for the Jefferson Union High School District.

“There is a critical shortage of math and science teachers,” Jefferson Elementary School District Superintendent Barbara Wilson said.

Part of the reason for the shortage is that people with math and science skills are often “snatched up” by private industry, which pays much more, she said.

The new program, dubbed the Innovation Fund, was launched in five schools with grants ranging from about $3,200 to $5,000 last year. With the increase in county funding alone, the program could grow to 10 schools or more with commitments from those companies that would most benefit from well-trained local workers, officials said. In addition, the program will grow from serving fifth-graders alone to include fourth grade, and will be expanded to include math teachers as well as science teachers, Church said.

“It was really exciting and really fun,” said Donna Hong, a Brisbane School District teacher and 2005 grant winner. Over several weeks, her students learned to analyze fingerprints, carpet fibers, and the acidity of liquids in a CSI-like crime scene she created.

While Genentech hadn’t received the request from the county, which went out Tuesday, and so couldn’t speak to the specific request, spokeswoman Caroline Pecquet said the company’s foundation donated about $1 million to science education programs in the Bay Area, mostly at the high school level, in 2005.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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